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sore heels and a salty throat

Three things need to be addressed.

1. In my last entry I wrote that it had been three months. Not true. It should have read 11 weeks. Today's entry comes exactly three months and three days into the trip.

2. I repeatedly referred to the Richmonds and their property as “farmers” and “the farm.” This was incorrect. This week I recalled a conversation that I had with George about how he and his family are not farmers, because “farmers plant things.” The property is a “station.” They grow grapes and raise sheep and cattle, making them…viticulturists? Shepherds? I'm actually not sure of the proper term, but “farmers” is not it.

3. There were many requests in recent comments for pictures of me to be posted. No worries, friends, several photos of me doing many NZ things do, in fact, exist. However, most are prints (meaning I can't post them yet), and the others that could be posted were edited out to save time and money and boringness. Only the most exciting and representative pictures made it to the webshots page, at least for now. Plus, there are several people who have been taking digital photos of various events and locales and have promised to send me CDs when I'm back home. But I will take this under advisement and do my best to get a few up there next time.

With the business cleared away…the update. Left the Richmonds last Monday, a gorgeously sunny, hot day. I'd become quite comfortable with the family, and found it difficult to break away. I had heaps of errands to run and things to buy and plans to make, but I simply couldn't get organized while I was still living with them. This made Monday fairly stressful, as I felt like I was going 100 different ways at once, adrift and unsure of the most efficient way to move on with my trip. I ended up heading straight north toward the lake, exhausting myself on the fifty km of very rough unsealed roads between Wairoa (the closet town) and the lake. Set up my tent for the night at a motor camp on the shores of the lake, and woke up in the night to the start of the forecasted heavy rains. Sweet. Tuesday was wet and gross, and I wasted a lot of time and money due to lack of planning. It wasn't long before my mood matched the weather. Tuesday night, though, I found a different place to spend the night – a single room in a cozy backpacker house – and decided to go ahead with my hike despite the rain.

Having a plan helped to take some pressure off, and waking up on Wednesday to patchy blue skies lifted a bit of the weight as well. Went for a warm-up hike, just a day trip to two of Waikaremoana's sister lakes (Waikareiti – Why-car-ee-tee – and Ruapani – Roo-ah-pahn-ee). Short hike though it was, I managed to rub quarter-sized blisters into both heels, which is, as you all know, the best possible thing to do the day before a three-day backpacking trip on one of the NZ “Great Walks.”

Thursday morning – hike day! And pouring rain. And blisters. But, I caught a ride on the water taxi at 9 AM sharp. Too late to turn back now. It was a ten minute ride from one side of the lake to the Hopuruahine (Hoe-poo-roo-ah-hee-nee) landing, the place where I planned to start my walk. I was dropped off unceremoniously on an outcropping of rock, and pointed in the direction of the trail, and that was it. See you in three days. Wet, wet, wet, wet, wet, wet, wet. The trail had become a literal streambed, and the water was so deep that I could actually follow the current with my eyes. Within the first half hour, my outer layer was soaked, and I'd sunk into mud that oozed over and into my hiking boots. However, my spirits were higher than they'd been in days. I'd retreated into the wilderness for physical and spiritual cleansing, and it was doing its job. This felt like detox: mentally I had only to focus on the path in front of me and could let my mind wander and sort things out. Physically, the air was warm enough to make me work up a sweat under my jacket, and I could feel the two weeks of cigarette smoke (Sue Richmond), red meat, butter, eggs, salt, beer, and other cholesterol-laden food being purged from my body.

Covered 18.4 km in 6 1/2 hours the first day. The trail was quite flat – a walk, truly, rather than a hike – and wound along the shores of the lake through a forest of magnificent silver beech. They grow tall and straight and wide. The roots begin to angle away from the trunk at about seven feet above ground, forming huge, anchoring fins, like a rocket ship. I tried to measure one with my arms, and estimated that it was close to thirty-five feet around at the base of the fins. The Lake Waikaremoana Track is located in the Te Urewera National Park – the largest plot of untouched forest in NZ, and it is extremely thick and untouched. I saw only two or three people the first day, although that night I shared the bunks of the Maruiti (Mah-roo-ee-tee) Hut with a family of four and three other women.

Day two: no rain! Low clouds, damp, and still muddy, but better than day one. 10.6 km on this day, in seven hours. A little slower, owing to an hour long detour to see the Korokoro Falls (totally worth it), and very raw heels, despite band-aids and gauze. By the time I made it to the Waiopaoa (?) Hut, the sun had come out, and I sat on the front porch of the hut soaking in the sun like a parched plant sucks water. Took a quick dip in the lake (chilly, but bearable) to wash off some mud, and saw foot-long rainbow trout hanging out in the weeds near the water's edge. Saw a tui (too-wee)! Tuis are native NZ birds, about the size of a morning dove, dark black, blue, and brown, with a white patch on their chests. I've heard them everywhere since I've been in NZ, but they're rather difficult to spot, so this was cause for excitement. Their singing is like nothing I've ever heard before. I can't fully describe it. At times it's like a piece of wood being dragged over a washboard. At others, it sounds like a weirdly melodic creaky hinge, or like wind blowing through water over a hollow pipe.

Day three: hating life, just a little bit. Decided to do the track in three rather than four days, and decided to do it anti-clockwise, saving the hardest bit for the end: the Panekiri (Pan-ah-keer-ee) Bluff. Straight up once side and down the other. My thinking was that my pack would be lighter at the end of the trip, and it was, but by that time my muscles were quite exhausted, and my blisters had turned into oozing, raw patches of pain. It was an eight and a half hour day; 16.4 km. Was thinking very, very black thoughts for the last two kilometers before the top of the bluff, but the view from the top was fantastic – clear, sunny skies! Finally, I could hike in shorts and a tank top. My hiking boots even dried out a little bit when I stopped for lunch on a sunny outcrop of rock that jutted out above the lake. When I saw the trail sign that marked the end of the track, I was euphoric. Exhausted, hobbling, and dirty, and so glad to be off the trail, but the sense of accomplishment was still high. Went for a swim, showered, hung my stuff out to dry, then collapsed on the couch, too tired to read, even. You couldn't have paid me to turn around and go back up the track. I think I was asleep by 9:00 that night.

So, my first NZ Great Walk under my belt, I left Waikaremoana on Sunday, and spent the day enjoying the heat and sunshine (naturally, the weather fined up after my hike) from inside Dr. Gonzo. Stopped for a minor repair in Wairoa (one of the Doc's trademark hood-mounted mirrors had come loose and needed epoxy-ing), then cruised along the beaches of the Mahia Peninsula before heading north to Gisborne. Booked into the Chalet Surf Lodge on the Wainui Beach, and called John, a 29-year-old fellow world traveler/Gisborne local whom I'd met up at the lake. Went out to the “Smash Palace,” a local's pub that features an antique fighter jet that'd been gutted and mounted over the pub as a sort of upper deck. John regaled me with stories of South America, Egypt, and Europe over a few drinks before taking me to the local fishing club, where a huge party being held to celebrate the end of a four day fishing contest. Though we were too late to catch the weighing ceremony, I got to meet a lot of locals, hear a lot of fish stories, and look at a lot of very, very nice boats.

Monday I met up with Mike and Sandy Richmond, the brother and sister in law of Derek Richmond. Mike owns a charter fishing boat and was getting ready to go out for a three day trip, but he treated me to lunch at the fishing club, and Sandy invited me to come and stay with her for my time in Gisborne. Hooray connections! Hooray generosity and openness and hospitality!

Didn't get to see the Richmond's place quite yet, though, as John called to invite me out to the Rere Rockslide with him and his younger sister. A forty-five minute drive out of town, the slide is another local's secret – a huge, wide, smooth rock slide in the Rere River, where people careen down the rock face on inner tubes, rafts, boogie boards and their bare bums. GREAT fun, though it took me a while to successfully complete a run without falling off and bouncing painfully down the slide, or without getting stuck like a beached whale halfway down, left to flail on the rocks and try to encourage my borrowed boogie board to move. Have permanently stained my white bathing suit by slipping and falling in the mud next to the slide, but I suppose the sheer entertainment value that the spectators next to the river got out of my fall makes it okay. John and his sister were rolling. Ha ha ha.

On the way back to town we stopped off at John's friend's house to pick up fish – fresh caught from the recent competition – and spent an hour or so out on the porch drinking wine and admiring the view out over the ocean before going back to John's house for dinner, then up into the hills to Sandy Richmond's place. It's these connections that are making the trip so worthwhile. As much as I love my independence, being able to meet up with locals and spend time seeing their towns through their eyes is far better than any sort of things that I'd discover on my own, passing through. The places that I see with the people I meet here blow the pants off any of the tourist attractions that I read about in my Lonely Planet guide or hear about from other backpackers.

Tuesday – Sandy woke me up before dawn and drove me up the hill on her way to work so that I could watch the sun come up over Poverty Bay. Gisborne is the first city in the world to see the sunrise every day, and this one was phenomenal. From where I sat, perched on a fence post on what felt like the top of the world, I had a 360 degree panoramic view of the ocean and all the hills and valleys in between. It was bloody windy, but the red, orange, purple, pink, yellow and eventual blue of the rising sun painted themselves across the entire horizon, and I felt like I could actually see the curving edge of the world as it turned into the new day.

Rather uneventful day – ran errands, tried to hang out on the beach, but ended up back at Sandy's in the early afternoon, tired out by the 30 degree heat (something over 80 Fahrenheit). She took me for a walk through their property in the early evening, when the heat had settled a bit. She and Mike own 250 acres of hilly pasture, about a twenty minute drive down a long gravel road way up in the hills above Gisborne. They graze about twenty of their own sheep, and lease the land and the woolshed to other local shepherds. We climbed all the way to their top paddock, “Lookout Paddock,” so named for the fantastic view of the coast and the city. At the very top we could see all the way south to the Mahia Peninsula, where I'd driven on Sunday, and also had a clear shot to Young Nick's Head, which is the name of the steep white cliffs that were the very first thing Capt. James Cook spotted when he discovered NZ. From up on the hill I could imagine being in a ship, watching the white land suddenly appear on the blue horizon, and imagine the excitement and awe that must have come with the discovery. While we walked, Sandy pointed out native trees and taught me about various plants and bushes as well as the general sort of eco system of the area, not that I will remember the dozens of names and varieties, but I'm learning.

This morning: SURFING! Oh, wow. This could become addicting. By the end of the three hour lesson, it was only the wet noodles my arms had been replaced with that stopped me from continuing on and practicing. There were five of us and one coach, who patiently taught us about the boards, the waves, and the best ways to hunt, judge, and eventually catch the white water. I actually stood up only once, long enough to finish a cheer of accomplishment before tumbling over backwards into the sand, but that was enough to hook me. My arms are limp, my nose and throat burn from the salt, but when I got back to Sandy's this afternoon and took a nap, all I could see behind my eyes was moving water, and all I could think about was when I could get back out there. Fantastic fun. It's raining now, so I'm content to be indoors, in my pjs with a cup of tea and my book, and this ridiculously long update. I've got to figure out a way to post comprehensively without taking hours to do so, because yes, this took me about three hours to write…Anyway, heading north tomorrow; hope for sunshine!

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